Prophetic voices? Dolan and Ryan versus the professors and Boehner

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Last week we had a letter to Catholic Speaker Boehner calling him out for his bad record on the poor and this week, Archbishop Dolan writes a letter Catholic Rep. Paul Ryan seemingly praising him (see CNS story). Still, the difference between Dolan's and the professors' letters has more to do with the tone than the message.

As commentators such as Kevin Clarke point out, a closer reading of the letter finds that Dolan is only praising Ryan’s letter to him and not his budget. Dolan’s letter must also be read in the context of the other letters he refers to: his own letter to Congress from January and Bishops Stephen Blaire and Howard Hubbard letter to Representatives about the proposed 2012 budget. These two, heading the domestic and international committees on justice and peace, have also signed on to the “Circle of Protection,” a petition to protect programs that serve the poor from budget cuts. Their letter is much more specific than Dolan’s, but nonetheless represents the USCCB:

A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons. It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly. In this letter we do not offer a detailed critique of the entire budget before the House, but we ask you to consider the human and moral dimensions of several key choices facing the Congress.

After referring to this letter, Dolan writes, “It is clear that all of this correspondence reflects recognition of the foundational principles at work.” Recognition and not application is a key distinction. Dolan doesn't say it OK to ignore the previous letters, but his goal is clearly engagement. His letter is an invitation to further discussion, and Dolan uses all the charm that he’s known for to ask for that discussion. This isn’t the end of the story, even if Ryan would like to use it as an endorsement and end the discussion here.

The professors’ letter to Boehner, in contrast, was more of a public protest, though I’m not sure how successful it was. We haven’t really taken up the national debate about the morality of the budget that I hoped for in my post last week, and the letter provoked no significant reaction from Boehner himself.

But what do you expect when you say, “Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.”

Trying to have a “prophetic voice” is a difficult thing. The professors were hard-hitting but lacked charity. Dolan was charming but risks being used by Ryan to reaffirm his views.

Last week I asked what will come of the letter to Boehner. This week I ask, what will become up Dolan’s letter to Ryan?